One of the year’s most exciting primary races took a dispiritingly tawdry tone this week when a tabloid reported that the progressive candidate in a House primary in South Texas had, a decade ago, been involved in a teacher-student sexual relationship. That this immediately became a media scandal, reported widely on right-wing sites, with some calling it a “character issue” for the candidate, would be understandable in some circumstances. After all, teachers lose their jobs and even go to prison when such relationships are revealed. The present-day social consensus is that teenagers are vulnerable, not quite adults, and that sexual relationships between them and those charged with teaching them is a form of exploitation. Most people agree: adults shouldn’t have sex with kids, even kids who are almost adults. A candidate running for office who’d done that would be doomed.
But there was a weird twist to this story. It wasn’t the teacher running for office. The candidate was the student.
Jessica Cisneros, twenty-eight, an immigration lawyer backed by democratic socialist congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the Justice Democrats, is challenging conservative Democratic incumbent Henry Cuellar to represent the Twenty-Eighth Congressional District in South Texas. She was eighteen at the time of the reported relationship, and her teacher, John Balli, was forty.
Apparently seeing an opportunity to smear AOC, with whom the Right is politically and sexually obsessed to a dangerous degree, the New York Post reported the “scandal” this week with the headline “AOC-backed candidate Jessica Cisneros had affair with her high school teacher: emails.” The framing “had an affair” seems oddly to suggest wrongdoing on Cisneros’s part. The tabloid quotes from humiliating and intimate emails and texts in which Cisneros bemoans their breakup (he apparently ended the relationship because he was getting married to someone else). The Daily Mail ran a similar report, with quotes from a friend of the teacher’s now ex-wife, blaming Cisneros for the eventual breakup of that marriage. The Daily Caller, the far-right site, also reported the story, though even some of their readers questioned its newsworthiness.
The Texas age of consent is seventeen, so neither party committed a crime here. Still, if Balli were running for office, it would understandably give many voters pause. But to blame the student, especially ten years later, is stunningly out of line. This week, the candidate’s supporters were left asking, how is it disqualifying to be exploited? Indeed, how is such an experience even relevant to a person’s fitness for office?
It’s hard to think of any widely reported incident of teacher-student sex for which the student was blamed. As numerous private schools have in recent years opened investigations into past teacher behavior, the stories of teachers’ affairs with students have been salaciously covered in the media and widely condemned. When teachers are prosecuted and imprisoned for having sex with students, these cases are also widely reported. The students in these cases do not face criminal prosecution. They are not kicked out of school. Often, they are regarded as victims, whether or not the relationship was consensual, and even when it was not illegal.
The tabloid framing of Jessica Cisneros’s story oddly defies all this current consensus, as well as plain common sense. Cisneros’s teenaged relationship with her former teacher a decade ago is of course not relevant to her fitness for office, but Cisneros poses a threat to powerful, conservative interests, and they’re eager to stop her.
Cisneros’s opponent, Henry Cuellar, opposes abortion, opposes Joe Biden’s immigration policy from the right, and celebrated the beginning of this year’s Women’s History Month by tweeting a quote from Margaret Thatcher. Cisneros, a strong supporter of Medicare for All, the PRO Act, and the Green New Deal, ran against Cuellar for the first time in 2020. She lost but came close, and this year she is running an even stronger campaign against the nine-term congressman. Her campaign has emphasized Cuellar’s ties to special interests, which are legion; in January, Aída Chávez reported on Cuellar’s close relations to the oil (“Big Oil’s Favorite Democrat”) and private prison industries in the Nation magazine. Cisneros has also been endorsed by Bernie Sanders, Jamaal Bowman, Ed Markey, and Elizabeth Warren.
Cuellar has been under federal investigation due to some alleged shady dealings with the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan; in January, the FBI raided his home, which is never a good sign for a public servant. In the March 1 primary, Cisneros enjoyed something close to an upset against the incumbent: neither got to 50 percent, the share required to avoid a runoff, which will be held May 24.
No wonder the smears have begun. Cuellar has not exactly been keeping it classy, sending the link to the Daily Mail story to at least one reporter unprompted. Given questions of international corruption, for which he could face serious legal trouble — in addition to perfectly legal wrongdoing on behalf of the fossil fuel industry — it’s understandable that Cuellar would welcome a chance to smear Cisneros’s character. The media shouldn’t fall for it, though.
Let’s hope Cuellar’s disgraceful use of this story backfires. It just might. As one of the only remaining national Democrats actively opposing abortion rights, he risks looking out of touch with women’s common coming-of-age experiences, which often involve such consensual but unequal relationships with teachers, bosses, or older mentors. His eagerness to participate in gratuitous slut-shaming of his campaign opponent, besides being a hideously unattractive marker of character, is all too fitting given that anti-abortion politics is itself a form of cruelly institutionalized slut-shaming.
For her part, Cisneros shouldn’t let herself get thrown off by this absurd smear. And so far she hasn’t. She’s continued to stay on message, pointing out repeatedly that the residents of Laredo lack clean water, while her opponent has a long record of putting the interests of all the worst capitalists over those of his constituents. His exploitation of this ridiculously sexist tabloid story reveals more about who he is than the story itself does about Cisneros. While not Henry Cuellar’s worst crime against the people of Texas, let’s hope this sorry episode is among his last.